Imagine the fantastic–finding a ring forged for power. You might slip it on, unless you knew that most magic objects in fantasy have a rule—a catch (Hamilton 61). Then you might hesitate, wanting to know the consequence of wearing the magical band. But what if your hesitation is cut short, as your will is overcome by the power of the ring? You might find yourself invisible and long-lived like Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. You might discover that you can rescue dwarves, outsmart spiders and steal from dragons with your new power. Or, you might gain the power to cast off your beliefs and leave your life, like Tenar in The Tombs of Atuan. In The Tombs of Atuan and The Hobbit, the main character accepts a ring willingly, yet neither knows what the consequence will be, nor to whom he or she is pledging their bond.
According to the Dictionary of Literary Symbols, “the ring is a sign of a pledge” (Ferber). In some Germanic epics like Beowulf, this pledge is a bond “between lord and vassal” (Ferber). Bilbo does not determine who the lord of his ring is, or what pledge he is making before he slips the ring on his finger. It is fair to say that Bilbo does not consider these issues because he does not know the history of the ring he finds, but Tenar knows the story of her ring, and it is foreboding. Tenar is High Priestess of the Tombs of Atuan. She learns of a wizard who “came to rob the Tombs, long ago” (Le Guin 57), armed with an amulet of power called the Ring of Erreth-Akbe. In a great battle, the ring is broken and the defeated wizard flees with half. The other half is buried deep within the tomb’s treasury for safe-keeping. Knowing that the ring had been forged by an enemy who would destroy your home and your life might be enough for you to refuse it. But Tenar is a young girl, who only knows the isolation and rituals of the tombs. “She [has] very seldom seen a stranger” (Le Guin 70). Therefore, she cannot process the legends as a worldly person might, and does not carefully consider what pledge she makes by accepting the Ring of Erreth-Akbe.
Luckily, the pledge that comes with her ring is one of peace. Tenar’s ring is marked with “nine Runes of Power on the inside” (Le Guin 134). Each Rune protects or gives some quality except for the Rune that was broken by the halving long ago. “It was the Bond-Rune … the sign of peace” (Le Guin 134). When this Rune was broken, there was no more peace among the Kings who brought “wars and quarreling among all the lands of Earthsea” (Le Guin 134). In the course of mending and wearing the ring, Tenar is told she will bring peace to the city of Havnor, and that she will be greeted as a princess. As you can see, her pledge carries great responsibility for she can fix what ails her world. “They’ll do [her] honor for the great gift [she] brings them, and bid [her] welcome” (Le Guin 161). The ring gives her purpose and place as she leaves the Tombs behind. Her ring becomes her Lord, but it is a good lord for she will serve peace by taking it to Havnor.
Bilbo will not serve peace when he performs his first service to the Ring of Power, which is to find it. He finds it, because it “wants to be found” (Tolkien, Fellowship 42). Unlike the legend of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, the legend of the Ring of Power has almost been forgotten when Bilbo finds “a tiny ring of cold metal” (Tolkien, “Hobbit” 81). Bilbo does not stop to consider his find—he does not hesitate as you might do. “He put(s) the ring in his pocket almost without thinking” (Tolkien, “Hobbit” 81). He does not know that the ring has power and will eventually be his lord. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf the Grey wizard is concerned and says, “[The ring] has got far too much hold on you. Let it go! And then you can go yourself, and be free” (Tolkien, “Fellowship” 378). Gandalf determines that the ring is Sauron’s talisman of evil that had almost destroyed Middle Earth two thousand years before. With the Ring of Power, Sauron will be able to destroy the good races. Bilbo could not know that by keeping and using the ring, he will bring chaos, evil and madness to assault Middle Earth. He might have assumed this, however, if he had considered the state of the previous owner of the ring.
Shortly after finding the ring, Bilbo discovers a disturbing creature who has been driven mad by the ring’s persuasive powers. “He [is] Gollum—as dark as darkness” (Tolkien, “Hobbit” 85), and he has lost the Ring of Power. “Lost it is, my precious, lost, lost! Curse us and crush us, my precious is lost!” (Tolkien, “Hobbit” 96). Gollum’s madness is evident as he talks himself into a frenzy, and then attacks Bilbo for the ring. Bilbo puts on the ring, which is when he discovers that it can make him invisible. The pledge has been made, and Bilbo uses the ring to achieve acts of heroism, while unknowingly succumbing to its persuasive powers.
Tenar also succumbs to persuasive powers—those of the young wizard named Ged, who mends the ring and gives it to her. He challenges her faith, explaining that her life has been wasted in worship of false gods. “They are immortal, but they are not gods … They are not worth the worship of any human soul” (Le Guin 129). He convinces Tenar that her “gods” only have the power to destroy and cannot give her or the world anything but darkness. Then Ged builds her trust in him by thanking her for sparing his life and by giving her what he had come to steal. “You have proved your trust in me. I have made no return. I will give you what I have to give” (Le Guin 140). Tenar accepts the ring. Being a thinking person, you might consider your confused state of mind when trying to make such an important life decision, but Tenar has had little contact with strangers, has lost her faith and is still very young. She gives into Ged’s persuasion, accepts the ring and decides to leave her life as High Priestess of the Tombs.
We have learned that a magical ring can greatly change a person’s life, because magical rings come with rules and pledges and lords. Bilbo is enabled to achieve heroic acts, but almost dooms his world to the evil powers of Sauron by using the Ring of Power. Tenar accepts the Ring of Erreth-Akbe pledging to bring peace to Earthsea. What seemed like a gift to Bilbo beomes a curse to Middle Earth and what seemed like a curse to Tenar’s “world” becomes a gift to Earthsea. Fantasy can be full of surprises. Imagine finding a magical ring—one that is forged for power. Would you think carefully before accepting the ring, the pledge, and the lord you will serve? Perhaps it is better to never have to make the choice. Perhaps it is safer to leave magical rings in fantasy books.
Ferber, Michael. Dictionary of Literary Symbols. West Nyack, NY, USA: CambridgeUniversity Press, 1999. p 169-170. http://www.site.elibrary.com/lib/albertaac/Doc?id=10070397$ppg=181
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Tombs of Atuan. New York, London, Toronto: Aladdin Paperbacks, 2001.
Hamilton, Mary G., and William Thompson. English 305: Literature for Children. Canada: AthabascaUniversity, 2003.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. Hammersmith, London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. Hammersmith, London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006.
Ring Image courtesty of Dingen Voor Musea license through Creative Commons